Moscow is unable to suppress resistance to its will in Afghanistan. And it has not yet found a way to regain control over Poland. But it is successfully putting a new strain into the relations of the United States with its NATO allies.
The srain arises out of the reluctance of the Reagan administration to get into arms control talks with the Soviets. But such talks have become a domestic political necessity to the West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. It is axiomatic that NATO has meaning largely in terms of the German-American relationship.
During this past week the German chancellor presented his case to Washington by way of the lead article in the spring issue of the prestigious quarterly Foreign Affairs, which is read by almost everyone in foreign-policymaking circles the world around, but particularly in Washington.
In the article the chancellor contends that President Reagan "must vigorously work towards arms limitation talks between the two superpowers." He asserts that there is an absolute linkage between resumption of arms-control talks and the deploying of the new generation of American intermediate-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. His words are almost an ultimatum. No talks, no new weapons.
Behind this is the steady increase in the number of new SS-20 Soviet medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe. At latest reports there are now 220 of these weapons on line. Each can deliver three nuclear warheads at distances up to 2,700 miles, more than enough to reach every city and any military target in Western Europe.
At a meeting of NATO ministers on Dec. 12, 1979, it was decided that the continued deployment of the SS-20s called for a balancing response. It was decided that the US would build and mount in Europe 108 new Pershing II launchers, and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles.
At the same time it was decided that the diplomats should talk to the Soviets about limiting such theater nuclear weapons, or perhaps even banning them entirely.
The Soviets have exploited deftly the differences between Bonn and Washington over the linkage between talks and weapons deployment. On Feb. 23 Soviet party leader Leonid Brezhnev proposed an early "summit" conference with President Reagan. Almost daily ever since there has been some new purported proposal from Moscow for resumption of SALT talks, for a ban on nuclear testing, for negotiations over theater nuclear weapons, etc.
These proposals have been orchestrated into a propaganda campaign in West Europe. Today in West Germany demonstrations against the proposed new American middle-range missiles have become as frequent and fashionable among the political left as once were the demonstrations against nuclear power stations. Resolutions opposing the new weapons have been passed by some local branches of Chancellor Schmidt's own Social Democratic Party and also by some branches of the Free Democratic Party, which is allied with the Social Democrats in the Bundestag.
It is deemed probable by most political observers in West Germany that the German people would turn decisively against deployment of the new weapons unless President Reagan does agree to resume arms control talks with the Soviets.
But to resume such talks could be almost as painful politically at home for Mr. Reagan as the absence of the talks would be to Chancellor Schmidt in Bonn. The belief that SALT II was unfair to the United States was a cardinal feature of Reagan campaign rhetoric.
The Reagan administration has backed down on one point from its campaign position on talking to the Soviets. Lawrence Eagleburger, who is US assistant secretary of state-designate for Europe, attended a meeting of the NATO Special Consultative Group on March 31. At that meeting he said the US would be willing to resume talks aimed at placing limits on the medium-range missiles to be based in Europe. He could not make any promises about resuming SALT II talks. And no date was set for the European-based missile talks.
Besides, Mr. Eagleburger's confirmation by the Senate has been held up by conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Another strain on the Bonn-Washington relationship was caused by the decision in Washington in the early Reagan days to send military aid to the ruling junta in El Salvador. The West Germans have favored a political compromise and criticized the junta's policies.
Fortunately for NATO relations, that problem has declined. The administration has tapered off its arms program and turned to providing economic help. It has also concerned itself with trying to check the violence coming from the political right in El Salvador.
But the German-American strains remain, especially over that crucial missile-talk issue. And Mr. Brezhnev seems even ready to postpone his own very difficult decision on Poland in order to keep up his campaign of wooing t he West Germans.